By Charles Matthews

Monday, September 20, 2010

5. Zuleika Dobson, by Max Beerbohm, pp. 147-184

Zuleika Dobson (Modern Library Paperbacks)IX-X
The Duke and his followers' mad dash seems to have been unnecessary: Zuleika hasn't yet arrived. The Warden explains that she had decided to change dresses. The Duke regards the Warden in a new light:
Here was a man who -- for had he not married and begotten a child? -- must have known, in some degree, the emotion of love. How, after that, could he have gone on thus, year by year, rusting among his books, asking no favour of life, waiting for death without a sign of impatience? Why had he not killed himself long ago? Why cumbered he the earth? 
Meanwhile, an undergraduate is on stage singing a song about a lover who "predicted that only when he were 'laid within the church-yard cold and grey' would his lady begin to pity him." For the Duke, "This fictitious love-affair was less nugatory than the actual humdrum for which Dr. Dobson had sold his soul to the devil."

And then Zuleika arrives, "brilliant in black." She leads the audience in an ovation for the singer, who has had to start over because of the sensation caused by her arrival. And then she turns to the Duke to point out the reason for her decision to change her dress: The pearls in her earrings have turned black. It is a sign, she tells him, that she has gone "quite unconsciously into mourning for him." She is so thrilled with the idea of his dying for love of her that she asks, "Will you, please, at the last moment to-morrow, call out my name in a loud voice, so that every one around can hear?" He agrees to do so.

Meanwhile, news of the Duke's plan to take his life has buzzed through the audience, spread by those who had been at the Junta. Everyone is eagerly awaiting his performance on the piano, and although he hadn't decided beforehand what to play, as he sits at the keyboard it comes to him: Chopin's Funeral March. The performance even summons the ghosts of Frédéric Chopin and George Sand. Despite the nature of the music, "he smiled brilliantly through" the performance. "And Zuleika returned his gaze with a smile not less gay. She was not sure what he was playing. But she assumed that it was for her, and that the music had some reference to his impending death." Chopin's ghost is thrilled with the performance, but George Sand warns him that he'll have a headache if they don't leave. Besides, she tells him, he'll be joining them tomorrow.

When they leave the hall, the Duke and Zuleika are greeted by a throng of undergraduates, now convinced that they too must die for love of her.
If any one of the undergraduates had met Miss Dobson in the desert of Sahara, he would have fallen in love with her; but not one in a thousand of them would have wished to die because she did not love him. The Duke's was a peculiar case.... These other, these quite ordinary, young men were the victims less of Zuleika than of the Duke's example, and of one another. A crowd, proportionately to its size, magnifies all that in its units pertains to the emotions, and diminishes all that in them pertains to thought.... To die for Miss Dobson was "the thing to do." The Duke was going to do it. The Junta was going to do it. It is a hateful fact, but we must face the fact that snobbishness was one of the springs to the tragedy here chronicled. 
Zuleika, meanwhile, still has her mind set on retrieving the transformed studs from the Duke's shirtfront as "a keepsake of the tragedy that was to be." But she's startled when she learns that the magnitude of the tragedy now threatens to increase, that the men at the Junta had vowed to follow his example. He assures her, "They will recant their folly. I shall force them to."

The MacQuern approaches them with a handkerchief that he claims Zuleika dropped, though it "was obviously a man's" handkerchief. It's a pretext for an introduction to which the Duke accedes "with sulky grace." The MacQuern -- whom Zuleika decides to call Mr. MacQuern because "'The' would sound so odd in the vocative" -- confirms that they are all determined to die tomorrow, "After the Eights, I suppose; at the same time as the Duke. It wouldn't do to leave the races undecided." Whereupon Zuleika decides that she must do something to "show [her] gratitude" for their devotion. She calls on her maid, Mélisande, to bring the malachite casket in which she keeps her magic tricks.

The second part of the concert is still going on, but the only ones in the hall are the performers, a few dons, and the sisters and cousins of the men who had brought them but had abandoned them to gaze at Zuleika. So Zuleika decides to put on her magic show there in the quad. "She stood with eyes downcast and hands folded behind her, moonlit in the glow of lanterns, modest to the point of pathos, while the Duke gracefully and simply introduced her to the multitude."
Two or three thousands of human bodies, human souls? Yet the effect of them in the moonlight was as of one great passive monster. So it was seen by the Duke, as he stood leaning against the wall, behind Zuleika's table. He saw it as a monster couchant and enchanted, a monster that was to die; and its death was in part his own doing.
Zuleika begins her performance, the one that has thrilled audiences on two continents. And we learn that it is cheesy and amateurish, a "stale and narrow repertory" that demonstrates "her marked lack of skill." The truth even dawns on the Duke, "who blushed to think what these men thought of her.... They forgave her -- confound their impudence! -- because of her beauty. The banality of her performance was an added grace. It made her piteous. Damn them, they were sorry for her."

Her final trick is the Magic Canister, into which she asks men in the audience to deposit a watch, a cigarette-case, a necktie and the like. And she asks the Duke for his studs. "There was no help for it. He quickly extricated from his shirt-front the black pearl and the pink." All of the items in the canister then disappear into its hidden compartment. She shows the audience the "empty" canister, then makes them reappear -- all but the two studs. "Would she rob the Duke, and his heir-presumptive, and the Tanville-Tankertons yet unborn? Alas, yes. But what she now did was proof that she had qualms.... With a gesture of her disengaged hand, so swift as to be scarcely visible, she unhooked her earrings and 'passed' them into the canister." It is these she returns to the Duke, keeping his studs. Realizing that he has been tricked, he tells her to keep them.

She acknowledges the applause of the crowd "in the manner of a prima donna -- chin up, eyelids down, all teeth manifest, and hands from the bosom flung ecstatically wide asunder." As the crowd breaks up, the forsaken ladies from the concert inside having "moved down into the quadrangle, spreading their resentment like a miasma," The MacQuern approaches to invite her to lunch with him the next day. She agrees, asking him to bring his friends, which is not what he had planned. "'I had hoped --' he began. 'Vainly,' she cut him short." So he agrees to invite the Duke.

Naturally, the Duke is miffed: "Had it not been arranged that he and she should spend his last day together? Did it mean nothing that she had given him her ear-rings?" He and The MacQuern almost come to blows now over which will walk Zuleika home. "Men had fought for Zuleika, but never in her presence. Her eyes dilated." She wonders if she should "be holding aloft a candelabra of lit tapers; no, that was only done indoors, and in the eighteenth century." But it turns out that "The Duke and The MacQuern would never have come to blows in the presence of a lady. Their conflict was necessarily spiritual. And it was the Scotsman, Scots though he was, who had to yield."

As they walk, she wonders if the black owls are sitting on the battlements of Tankerton. When they reach the door, the Duke seizes her hands, but she angrily twists out of his grip.
He laughed. "You are afraid of me. You are afraid to let me kiss you, because you are afraid of loving me. This afternoon -- here -- I all but kissed you. I mistook you for Death. I was enamoured of Death. I was a fool. That is what you are, you incomparable darling: you are a fool. You are afraid of life. I am not. I love life. I am going to live for you, you hear?" 
Is he going back on his promise? she asks. He insists that she will release him from it because she really loves him. She calls him a coward and goes indoors. "No man had ever dared to lay hands on her," she reflects, noticing the red marks on her wrists. "With a sense of contamination, she proceeded to wash her hands thoroughly with soap and water." As she goes on in this melodramatic manner, it starts to rain, which pleases her because he told her he would wait under her window.
He had told her she was afraid of life. Life! -- to have herself caressed by him; humbly to devote herself to being humbly doted on; to be the slave of a slave; to swim in a private pond of treacle -- ugh! If the thought weren't so cloying and degrading, it would be laughable.
She thinks of leaving Oxford by the first train in the morning, "But this could not be done without slighting all those hundred of other men." So instead she takes the water jug and empties its contents out the window onto the Duke.

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